Review: Another Country

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Another Country
Another Country by James Baldwin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You had better have developed a solid sense of self before cracking open this book. Every clichĂ© on the jacket is correct, that it packs a serious punch, that it’s brutally honest, that its very writing is an act of violence. I have not experienced literary descriptions of such raw emotional turmoil since reading The Jungle. Except this one is far more subtle, and, frankly, brighter.

You could say it’s about “race relations” or “sexuality” but all that does is slap a teeny label on a massive exploration of human interactions. Set in late 1950s New York City in a supposed liberal bastion, this book really puts into perspective the ticking bomb that was set to explode into the civil rights, and later the “free love” movements of the 60s and 70s.

Granted, there were sections of this book that dragged out a bit. I just cannot relate to these bohemian social butterfly expats who flit among bars, always with a drink in hand, always ready to lose themselves in an adulterous affair or experiment with their sexuality. I’ve seen them in other novels, and I can only assume their authors are them or something close to it.

Having said that, my favorite part of the book is the honesty, clarity, and emotional intelligence with which these tough topics are treated: sexuality, race, interracial relationships, prostitution, policemen, suicide, the south. To paraphrase a quote from the book, “no policemen, anywhere in the world, were working for the powerless.” Well, writers are.

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A Voice to Share

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Okay, this is not about writing, but the parallels are striking. I’ve been a fan of Lindsey Stirling since I first saw a few of her videos. Part of her appeal is her back story, the one she shares in this video. It sounds a lot like the way unknown writers struggle to become known.

Like us, she says that when she first got serious about it, she “tried all the very traditional routes, because I didn’t know any other way.”

After gaining experience through discouragement and rejection, she ultimately has to face the sobering fact: “I don’t have the kind of money that it takes to make it in this world… I don’t have the connections.”

I am one of those new age freaks who honestly believe being an artist is something inborn. I know that all indie writers can relate to the same sentiment she expresses: “I had a voice to share, I had art I knew could work and yet nobody would believe in my project.”

Yet, today’s technology offers us an opportunity to circumvent the exclusive, high-walled garden of success for the first time in history. It’s the same in the music industry as it is in publishing: “Here was a world where I didn’t have to wait for somebody else to tell me I was good enough.”

Yes, you still face rejection, discouragement, and you still have to work harder than you thought, but “all the tools were there where I could invest in myself.”

There is something to be said for having total control over the publishing process. It’s not strictly a business decision, it’s also a moral decision. The entire paradigm changes. When people say “the slushpile has moved online” they are absolutely right. But to believe that the public has the ability to sort through that pile themselves and find their own gems is to have a profound faith in the intelligence of your constituency. A lot of people fall by the wayside and remain obscure, and only a handful will really succeed. That hasn’t changed. But that gateway is no longer guarded by an “expert,” and the tearing down of that wall represents the very great moral advantage of self-publishing.

Review of Indy Writes

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Indy Writes Books: A Book Lover's AnthologyIndy Writes Books: A Book Lover’s Anthology by M. Travis DiNicola
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a native southerner, I of course place no stock in the premise that a disproportionate number of great writers come out of the great state of Indiana. So right off the bat, I picked up this book as a challenge. This anthology contains plenty of vanilla works of fiction, but that is the power of an anthology: Out of 20-30 stories, some will shine. Here are my favorites:

– Between the Lines, by Ben H. Winters: A very clever, lighthearted story, right up my alley, treading the line between sci-fi and literary fiction.
– Moving Again, by John Green: This very kooky author cracks me up. I liked the story because it reminded me of my own recent moving experience. Books weigh a lot!
– Romancing the Book, by Liza Hyatt: Another very close-to-home treatment of the love affair so many of us enjoy with the written word.
– What Once Was, by Frank Bill: Haunting and violent, reminded me of the “Country Noir” of Daniel Woodrell
– Anna’s Wings, by Angela Jackson Brown: The only story in the collection that made me cry. Not just sad, but beautifully crafted and written.
– Black Like… Me? by Barbara Shoup: A very powerful treatment of race. She touches on something I’ve recently read from Steven Pinker too, that books help make the world a more peaceful place because they teach us empathy.

I cannot say that I know enough about the editing & publishing process to rate & review the efforts of M. Travis DiNicola to compile this collection. As a writer I of course give the bulk of the credit to the writers. However, I am very glad that collectors are out there, trying their ear on new & upcoming writers, so that a short read like this can lead a humble reader like myself to discover a half dozen new talented voices.

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Review: Jerry Is Not a Robot

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Jerry Is Not a Robot
Jerry Is Not a Robot by Gregory Marlow
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a fun little story. It’s easy to tell how much the author loves Isaac Asimov. The premise is simple and engaging: the enigmatic master invites the enthusiastic apprentice to help work on his “project.” Slowly, the layers unfold and the true nature of the “project” becomes apparent. But you don’t know until the catharsis whether the enigmatic master is working for good or ill gains.

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Review: The Complete Persepolis

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The Complete Persepolis
The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This really is an extraordinary book. Marjane Satrapi creates a very intimate, special world, not just by creating an autobiographical story, but by creating a mini-universe of comic and cartoon images. As a novel, this would just be another novel about a refugee and wartime hardships. By creating a piece of visual art, the author has cemented her story in the popular consciousness. I hope I can find other books by other people who have experienced these kinds of trials. It is vaguely reminiscent of Khaled Hosseini‘s work, but only topically. What I really want, and what Satrapi accomplishes, is a peek into the life of an ordinary civilian during wartime, trying desperately to cling to heritage, pleasure, and dignity.

Here are my two favorite concepts from the book. First, the assertion that fundamentalist rule is a way of using fear as a weapon to control the masses: “They knew that if a woman leaves her house every morning thinking, ‘Is my veil long enough,’ then that crowds out other thoughts like ‘What happened to my civil liberties?'” Second, that we are not morally obligated to risk our lives to overthrow an oppressive government (though plenty did, and were executed). “Our revolution set us back fifty years. It will take generations to reclaim our freedom and heritage. But you only get to live one life. Go, leave this country and live it to the fullest.” Our first moral obligation is to be true to ourselves, and live our lives rightly, and to the fullest.

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